February 12, 2016

Kerry Says Laos Keen to Avoid Militarization of South China Sea

By:  David Brunnstrom, Reuters, January 25, 2016

Photo Credit:  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tours the 
That Luang Stupa or ''Pha That Luang,'' with Phouvieng Phothisane, 
Acting Director of the Vientiane Museums, and Tata Keovilay, 
with the U.S. Embassy, in Vientiane, Laos.  REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool.

Laos wants to see maritime rights respected and avoid a military build-up in the South China Sea, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday, after a meeting with Laos' Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong to urge ASEAN unity in the face of Chinese claims.

Laos is the 2016 chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and hosts a summit later in the year that will include the leaders of the United States and China.

"He was very clear he wants a unified ASEAN and he wants maritime rights protected, and he wants to avoid militarization and to avoid conflict," Kerry told reporters after meeting Thongsing in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

Kerry, only the third U.S. secretary of state to visit Cambodia since John Foster Dulles in 1955 and Hillary Clinton in 2012, was responding to a question whether Laos would take a strong line on territorial disputes in the South China Sea as ASEAN chair.

Laos has close political and economic ties with giant neighbor China, prompting the Obama administration to worry that Vientiane might behave like Cambodia did when it held the ASEAN chair in 2012.

Cambodia was accused of obstructing consensus in the bloc over standing up to China's assertive pursuit of its South China Sea claims, which have since included the building of artificial islands suitable for military use.

"It is particularly important that Laos finds itself playing a critical role within ASEAN, and ASEAN itself is critical to upholding the rules-based system in the Asia-Pacific and ensuring that every country, big and small, has a say in addressing the matters of shared concern," Kerry said.

"We want everybody to have a voice within the region without regards to size, power and clout."

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